Larry Cain had visions of being a head football coach one day.
Just not this soon.
For a year and a half, he assisted Jeff Cook with the Gilbert Christian program. Cook’s son, Nolan, was the team’s star, rushing for 1,210 yards with 14 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2011.
Once Nolan graduated in 2014, Cain thought the idea of taking over the Knights might be broached. It seemed like a natural transition if Jeff was interested in stepping down.
Unbeknownst to either party, the switch came much sooner than expected. Cook took a job transfer to Pinetop in early July and Cain took over interim duties. A few weeks later, he was named the team’s coach.
“(Cook leaving) was something we talked about a couple months prior, but neither one of us expected it,” Cain said. “It was more of a joke than anything. Then one day he called me, and it got real. It’s like, ‘OK, here we go.’”
Gilbert Christian went 5-3 in 2011, its first year of Arizona Interscholastic Association-sanctioned Division VI (8-man) play.
Despite a state-of-the-art field, the program was still low on participation numbers. With Nolan Cook leading the way, though, the Knights figured to have success for the foreseeable future, which would generate interest in the program.
But Nolan transferred to Blue Ridge when his father had to move, where he currently leads the top-ranked (Div. IV) Yellow Jackets in rushing.
Naturally, the departure of Gilbert Christian’s coach and best player raised questions.
“We were worried,” junior running back Saile Daimwood said. “With Nolan leaving and his older brother (Mason) graduating, those were our two biggest kids right there. We didn’t really know what to expect.”
Cain settled the waters. He continued to coach a club (football) team which featured a majority of Gilbert Christian’s players and prepared for the upcoming season as if he would be the guy in charge.
“By July 1, I had a depth chart, a new playbook,” Cain said. “We were already in the swing of things no matter what.”
The players saw how well the transition was going and went to the administration to vouch for Cain.
“We didn’t want them to bring in some guy who would completely change the system,” quarterback Trey Gass said. “Larry knew it like the back of his hand.”
While the coaching situation was ironed out, there were still questions about how the team would fare.
The first two games went well enough. The Knights didn’t dominate Salt River and Veritas Prep as much as last season, but still started 2-0. The big test was in Week 3 against Superior, a team that it lost to in 2011.
Daimwood said that was the turning point, as Gilbert Christian controlled the game from start to finish and cruised to a 62-14 victory.
Gass — who would have only gotten the ball sparingly had Cook returned — threw for 336 yards and five touchdowns while running for 147 yards and two more scores. His big game was a result of the silver lining when Nolan Cook departed: The Knights didn’t have the same dominant running back, but they were more unpredictable.
“Our offense before was give Nolan the ball and let him truck people,” Gass said.
Despite the loss of the Cooks, Gilbert Christian finished the regular season 6-2, a one-game improvement from a year ago. The team is now preparing for its first playoff game as it hits the road to face No. 7 seed Bagdad on Friday, and everyone is excited.
“There was no other goal,” Cain said. “We wanted to be in the playoffs.”
The boys basketball team will be revving up soon at Gilbert Christian, and the attention will soon be on that program as it shoots for yet another state championship.
But for at least another week, the eyes stay on the football program.
Following the uncertainty of three months ago, it’s an impressive achievement.
“Now we’ve got a lot of kids saying, ‘Next year, we’re going to play,’” Gass said. “There’s more and more kids realizing we’re not just going out there and getting creamed every week. We hold our own. It seems like the attitude is changing toward the football program. We’re having an impact.”